At CNN’s town hall Wednesday night, which featured students, parents, and teachers who experienced the mass shooting at a Florida high school last week, the final question for the politicians in the first half of the event came from a sophomore named Annabel Quinn Claprood. She went straight to the heart of America’s mass shooting epidemic.
“I just want to know,” she asked Rep. Ted Deutch, the Broward County Democrat, “Will my school campus be safe when I return? Because I plan to not return until I know that something is going to change. And I’m not the only one.”
The otherwise tactful congressman mumbled his way through a response. He must know that a school can’t be that much safer in a couple weeks while Americans still own more than 8 million AR-15s. Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel can order his deputies to carry rifles on campus, and the NRA’s Dana Loesch can promise to support the military fortification of elementary schools, but the answer to Claprood’s question is a deeply uncomfortable “No.”
Partly an intergenerational gun-policy debate, and partly a memorial service, the town hall was compelling television because simple questions kept overpowering evasive, technical answers. Over the last few days the public has been struck by the wherewithal of the Parkland students—their eloquence in the wake of tragedy, their good nature in the face of right-wing smear campaigns, their courage in confronting politicians and journalists on national television. Their efforts have been so extraordinary that some right-wing doubters assumed they were on the Soros payroll, an accusation to which 17-year-old Cameron Kasky retorted, “If you had seen me in my school’s production of Fiddler on the Roof, you would know that no one would pay me to act for anything.”
But what the students have in poise they lack in the sour experience of American politics, which led to productively raw questions like Kasky’s to Sen. Marco Rubio: “Can you tell me right now that you will not accept a single donation from the NRA in the future?” The answer to this question, too, was an uncomfortable “No,” though earlier questioning had revealed daylight between Rubio’s position on mass shootings and that of the NRA. But Kasky was ready to jaw with the senator, and at the very least, the exchange forced Rubio to repeat this choice defense three times: “People buy into my agenda.” I don’t quite know what it meant, but it effectively conveyed all the unseemly pay-to-play features of American politics that the Douglas students were young enough to question anew.
Perhaps the most moving contrast of the night was seeing Emma Gonzalez—whose angry speech at a rally in Fort Lauderdale on Saturday captivated the nation—confront the slick NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch. Her question, like the other two, was not a point of policy but of right and wrong: Do you believe it should be harder to obtain semiautomatic weapons and modifying devices like bump stocks? Loesch’s answer was the first of several disingenuous deflections and attacks she made over the course of the evening. After a while, Gonzalez interrupted to remind her what the question was.
That the Parkland kids don’t share the older liberal generation’s defeatism on gun control was evident. But the things they wanted to know reminded us that in a public forum, the answers don’t matter as much as the questions. It was powerful to hear disbelief in the status quo expressed by young, frustrated people who haven’t yet learned that’s the way things are. Together with the roars and jeers of the audience, the wrenchingly unassuming questions breathed new life into a debate that gun-control advocates have mostly convinced themselves they’ve lost.
The asymmetry of information helped Rubio and Loesch bury their views in the intricacies of semiautomatic rifle classification or the designs of crime-reporting systems. There were several points where the two Republicans got the best of their interlocutors. But the force of moral outrage has its own power, power over technicalities, power that can make teenagers and professional politicians seem for a moment like equals. America’s gun violence epidemic makes this country’s teens 82 times more likely to die from a bullet that their peers in the developed world. It’s hard to make a moral case to justify the pain of those who have seen that data point lived out, and neither Republican could muster a pure defense of gun rights.
The kids also scored some points over Rubio, over Loesch, and even their Democratic representatives. But the biggest unanswered question was one they didn’t have to ask: Why was Gov. Rick Scott, the Republican who has presided over the state’s dismantling of local gun laws, afraid to accept CNN’s invitation to debate a bunch of kids? Maybe gun control isn’t as closed an issue as we thought.